Mount Everest

On the morning of May 29th, 1953, New Zealander Edmund Hillary found himself working his way up a snow-covered mountain. Climbing with his partner, Tenzing Norgay, Hillary was intently engaged in cutting a series of steps in the snow to allow them to climb safely up a ridge. Then, at eleven-thirty, Hillary suddenly realized there was no place left to climb. " to my great delight I realized we were on top of Mount Everest and that the whole world spread out below us."

On that day man had finally conquered the tallest peak on the planet. It was a challenge that had eluded realization even after other goals, like traveling to the North and South poles, had been accomplished.

Seven Quick Facts
Height: 29,029 feet (8,848 m)
First Ascent: Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on May 29th, 1953
Age: Himalaya Mountains are 25 million years old. Everest has been the highest peak for the last half million.
Discovered: A British survey of the region discovered it was the tallest mountain in the world in 1852, but didn't release this information to the public until1856.
Location: Border of Nepal and The People's Republic of China.
Formed By: An up-thrust at the collision of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates.
Other: Called Qomolangma in China and Sagarmãthã in Nepal.

Mt. Everest is part of the Himalaya Mountains in the central region of Asia, north of the Indian sub-continent. Three hundred and twenty-five million years ago the region was the bottom of an ancient sea. Then, sixty million years ago, the tectonic plate under India started moving northward and running into the Eurasian plate. This caused the land at the junction to be crushed and thrust upward. About twenty-five million years ago this up-thrusting became the Himalaya Mountains. The lifting of the mountains continues even today with the range gaining another two-inches on average, every year. Everest has been the highest peak in the Himalayas for the last half million years.

Finding the Height

Although the Himalayas have long been recognized as some of the tallest mountains in the world, it wasn't until 1808 when the British decided to do a trigonometric survey of the region that the actual height of many of the peaks were established. The project took a number of years to accomplish and between 1830 and 1843 the effort was led by Sir George Everest, the Surveyor General of India. The British were frustrated in their attempt to get precise measurements on many of the highest peaks, however, because they lay in the country of Nepal. The government there, suspicious of British motives, turned down all requests for survey teams to enter the country. This forced the British to make their observations from as far away as 150 miles (240km) limiting their accuracy. As early as 1847 the team began to suspect that a peak beyond one called Kangchenjunga (which was at the time thought to be the highest in the world) was even higher, but they could not get precise enough measurements to be sure.

A climber makes the dangerous crossing of the Khumbu Icefall on the Southeast ridge route up the mountain. (Photo by Olaf Rieck licenced under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic)

The British persevered, however, and in 1852, Radhanath Sikdar, an Indian mathematician and surveyor with the project, used data collected the year before to conclude that this new peak, designated "XV" was the tallest in the world. The announcement was delayed until, March 1856, while the calculations were checked and rechecked. The height was determined to be 29,002 feet (8,840 m), though more recent surveys have placed the height at 29,029 feet (8,848 m), not counting the mountain's snowcap.

The survey team had been directed to use local names for geographic features whenever possible, but Andrew Waugh, leader of the survey at the time, stated that there were so many local names that it would be hard to favor one over another and recommended it be named for his predecessor, George Everest. The Royal Geographic Society accepted the name over the objections of Sir Everest himself. The name is still not universally acknowledged and the mountain is referred to as Qomolangma in China and Sagarmãthã in Nepal. The mountain sits on the border of Nepal and the country of Tibet (which is currently under the control of the People's Republic of China).

Ascending the Mountain

In an 1890 article entitled "Can Mount Everest be Climbed?," mountaineer Clinton Dent pondered whether this remote peak might ever be conquered, but the immediate problem with mounting such an attempt was political, not logistical. The governments concerned, Nepal and Tibet, rejected all requests to enter the region. In 1913 Captain J.B. Noel disguised himself as a native and entered the area in an attempt to view the mountain close up, but never got closer than 40 miles (65km) before he was turned back by the Tibetan military. Finally, in 1921, Tibet allowed a British reconnaissance team to work its way up the mountain to the 23,000 foot level. The next year some of the members of the team returned to make the first attempt on the summit but when an avalanche killed seven of the porters, the expedition was cancelled.

Mount Everest and the surrounding Himalayas as seen from the International Space Station.

In 1924, George Mallory, who had been on the first two British expeditions along with newcomer Sandy Irvine, made an attempt to ascend to the summit. According to a fellow climber they appeared to be "going strong for the top" when they disappeared into a mist of swirling snow. They did not come down and Mallory's frozen body wasn't found until 1999. When Hillary and Tenzing reached the top 29 years later they looked for signs that the two climbers had been there, but found nothing.

Death Zone

The pair was just one of many deaths that have occurred on the mountain through the years. Temperatures on Everest can plummet without warning,leading to frostbite. Extreme high winds can knock a climber off the face of the mountain. Because of the high altitude the air is only about a third of the pressure it is at sea level making it much more difficult for the human body to get the oxygen it needs to keep running. Under these conditions a climber gets tired easily and their thinking can grow fuzzy, making mountaineering at these heights even more dangerous than it would be otherwise. For this reason climbers operating above 26,246 feet ( 8,000 m), in what is called the "Death Zone," will often use masks that supply them with supplemental oxygen from a bottle. Hillary and Tenzing used bottled oxygen when they climbed the peak in 1953 and for many years it was thought that reaching the summit without it would be impossible. However, in May of 1978, Reinhold Messner from Italy and Peter Habeler from Austria made the first ascent without supplemental oxygen, proving that it could be done.

The sun's rays catch the top of the mountain. (Photo by Topgold licenced under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Hillary and Tenzing used a path up the mountain called the "Southeast Ridge" because it allowed access from Nepal. However, in the years since Chinese policy changed allowing access from Tibet, a second route, the "Northeast Ridge," has become popular. There are some thirteen other routes up the mountain, but these are more difficult and rarely used.

Dangerous Over-Commercialization

Recently there have been complaints that the climbing of Everest has become over-commercialized with more and more novice climbers hiring professional guides to get them up the mountain. A guided climb may cost between $40,000 and $80,000 depending on the route traveled and the client needs little in the way of Alpine experience. On May 11, 1996, a traffic jam of climbers on one route, combined with a sudden snowstorm, killed eight people in one day. Another eight died in the course of that climbing season, making it the most deadly year on record for the mountain. Many long-time mountaineers complain that the novices being guided up Everest do not appreciate the dangerous situation into which they are placing themselves and they do not have the skills necessary to save themselves should something go wrong.

As of 2010, 3,142 different people have reached the summit 5,104 times. Another 219 have died while trying to climb the mountain. Because of the difficult conditions on Everest there is often no attempt to recover the bodies and some frozen corpes can be seen from the major routes.

Despite the dangers it seems unlikely that the adventurous will soon be dissuaded from attempting to conquer the highest mountain in the world. Why do they do it? Well as George Mallory is often quoted when he was asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, "Because it is there."

Copyright 2011 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.